Today's Theme is Breadth

After hearing from Pastor Sauls on the valuable contributions from those who disagree, we read Mark Jones who has his own objections to the narrow road. Maybe Pastor Sauls qualifies as one of Jones’ Reformed irenics since the former is not beholden to Reformed orthodoxy. But I suspect Sauls would fall short because he doesn’t know enough historical theology. Those who do know the breadth of the Reformed tradition as Jones does are different from and less appealing than the Truly Reformed who read the Reformed confessions in a wooden manner (unlike someone trained in historical theology):

Among this group, I sometimes worry that their zeal for Confessional fidelity – a noble zeal, in and of itself – can sometimes reflect an overly restricted reading of the diversity of the Reformed tradition and our Reformed confessional history. They can read our confessions in a somewhat a-historical manner. Thus they tend to draw the lines of orthodoxy quite narrowly, excluding views from the tradition that have quite a bit of historical precedent. We must admit: our tradition has lots of diversity. Lots. And this diversity is present in the way our Confessions were formed, if one reads them carefully (e.g., the nature of Adam’s reward is ambiguous).

A recognition of diversity leads to an awareness of how narrow our conservative Presbyterian world in North America is:

When we consider the Christian world, and just how broad it is, it doesn’t make much sense for us in the Reformed Confessional tradition to be too narrow. We are, after all, a tiny minority. We should, as far as we are able, and without compromising our confessional heritage, embrace or respect other Christian traditions, viewpoints, and values. It is actually a firm confidence in our Reformed Confessional heritage that allows us to do this.

If I may be allowed a minute at the historical microphone, let me assert that historical theology is not church history. And church history teaches a couple of lessons that Dr. Jones’ historical theology apparently leaves out.

First, a confession is not a work of historical theology. It is a legal standard for a Christian communion. Does it mean that it doesn’t have a history or that context isn’t important for understanding the words and arguments of the Confession? No. But it does mean that a confession for a specific denomination functions in a very different way from a theologian highly regarded by people in a theological tradition. The Confession of Faith is a secondary standard for the PCA and the OPC. John Calvin and John Owen are not such legal standards. And the reason churches have confessions is very different from the aim that animates historical theologians; churches need criteria and consensus for ordination and discipline while historical theologians, like Dr. Jones at least, can marvel at the diversity.

Second, church history also teaches why some Presbyterian communions are narrow. The reason is that some Presbyterian communions became broad — as in Leffert Loetscher’s Broadening Church, the history of the PCUSA. In addition, one of the reasons mainline Presbyterians celebrated breadth owed in part to the discovery of Christians in other parts of the world and a concomitant recognition of how seemingly foreign the West’s creeds and confessions were to non-Westerners.

Dr. Jones may not be celebrating breadth and diversity in the same way, but when he lectures us about history, I wish he would take more history into account.

It's Not Exactly Growing the OPC

Jeff Gissing worries about the decline of doctrine and graying of hairs in the PCUSA. He also wonders if the loss of theology is connected to the loss of members:

Theologically, the PC(USA) made the calamitous choice of choosing to abandon consistent doctrinal standards—of even the most elemental type—in favor of an ad hoc, case-by-case approach, in which no belief is out-of-bounds as long as you can get a majority to vote for it. In a denomination that has come to value niceness as the zenith of the Christian virtues, simply appealing to one’s private, subjective interpretations or experience is generally sufficient to pass muster.

The PC(USA) is a denomination full of well-educated people, but at times it evinces a peculiarly petulant stupidity. Take, for example, a recent conversation in which it was claimed that should Presbyterian pastors be required to believe and follow our confession’s he would immediately be fired since he does not observe the Lord’s Day in the fashion envisioned by the Westminster Confession of Faith.

The trouble is, requiring pastors and congregations to adhere to the Westminster Confession, as the OPC does generally, isn’t exactly a “winning” formula as Charlie Sheen used to count victory. The small conservative denomination grows at a very modest rate, maybe 2 percent annually, and hovers just above 30,000 members. Some might say that taking theology too seriously is the problem. If people go to a church where they have to parse the active and passive obedience of Christ, instead of receiving tips on living a well-adjusted, Spirit-filled life, then why bother with all the theology?

The silver lining is that the greatest nation on God’s green earth affords freedoms of association that allow pastors, elders, and church members to commune with a measure of the seriousness of purpose that used to characterize Reformed Protestants. Would it help to have the magistrates requiring Americans to go to our churches? Yes, if you are interested in numbers and statistics and fancy buildings. But no, if you look at the established Protestant church of Europe.

For Roman Catholics who can’t help relishing the divisions and pint-sized denominations that Protestantism yields, please do keep an eye on the ball of “doctrine will never change.” The PCUSA hasn’t changed doctrine. Keeping the Sabbath holy is still on the books. The books require someone to enforce what’s on them. I thought that was what made the hierarchy special. What exactly does it take to disqualify as a Roman Catholic? Garry Wills may still be wondering.

What Would Happen if the PCUSA and OPC Started Ecumenical Dialogue?

If the OPC began to enter into ecumenical discussions with the PCUSA would someone be justified in thinking that the OPC had changed its estimate of the PCUSA? And would this change indicate a shift within the OPC itself to the point that you might plausibly argue that the denomination’s teaching had changed? In other words, what would it take for the OPC to recognize the PCUSA at least as a conversation partner?

On the matter of confessional statements, the OPC would have to get around the Barmen Declaration and the Confession of 1967. That’s enough to end the conversation.

On matters of practice and discipline, the OPC would have to overlook the ordination of women, the ordination of homosexuals, and the recognition of gay marriage. In questions about worship, the OPC would have to come to terms with a PCUSA hymnal that has some clunkers and that took the stuffing out of good hymns.

So with all these reservations, if the OPC went ahead and opened up discussions with the PCUSA, onlookers might well think that the OPC had lost its way, that the doctrine and practice that had once characterized the communion were no longer important, and that the OPC’s understanding of Reformed Protestantism had changed?

So now as folks like Ross Douthat wonder if changes surrounding sex and marriage will change not just discipline but the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church, why don’t those same folks wonder about what Vatican II did in reclassifying Protestants as separated brethren? Sixteenth-century bishops only knew those outside the church as infidels, schismatics or heretics. Separated brethren did not become part of episcopal language until the 1960s. And this came at a time when the Protestant churches were liberal (at least from the perspective of communions like the OPC). Sure, they weren’t in the ballpark of going soft on homosexuality and marriage. But the Protestants the bishops had in mind were not in communions like the OPC but were in denominations like the PCUSA where Reformed orthodoxy was hardly firm.

What would allow the bishops to change that understanding of Protestantism? And isn’t this indicative of a change in doctrine — not technically in the language of the catechisms or papal documents? Doesn’t this reflect a change in the understanding of the doctrine that defined Roman Catholicism or the degree to which doctrine or liturgy matter? If folks who were once in error and whose views needed to be anathematized now look like Christians who are worthy of dialogue, hasn’t something changed?

Why Westminster Is Independent (even if Scotland isn't)

From Mr. Murray’s own typewriter (included in the OPC Report of the Committee on Theological Education, Minutes of the General Assembly, 1945, 79-80)

The conclusion at which we arrive, therefore, is that certain phases of a seminary curriculum fall quite properly into the category of the theological education conducted by the church an: that other phases of such a curriculum are no part of the church’s responsibility.

It is highly important to remember, however, that though the church is obligated to teach the whole counsel of God, it does not follow that the teaching of the whole counsel of God may be given only under the auspices of the church. There are other auspices under which it is just as obligatory to teach and inculcate the Word of God. Such teaching should be given by parents in the instruction and nurture of their children. But the life of the family is not conducted under the auspices of the church. Such teaching should also be given in the Christian school in all of its stages and developments. The Christian world and life view as set forth in Scripture is the basis of the Christian school, and so the whole range of Scripture truth must, in the nature of the case, be presented if the education given is to be thoroughly Christian in character. But the Christian school, whether at the elementary or the secondary or the university stage, should not be conducted under the auspices of the church. The teaching of the Word of God given in the family and in the Christian school will indeed, as regards content, coincide with the teaching given by the church, but this coincidence as regards content does not in the least imply that such teaching should be given under the auspices of the church.

In like manner a theological seminary should teach the whole counsel of God. A great deal of the teaching must therefore coincide with the teaching given by the church, and, furthermore, a great deal of it is the teaching that may properly be conducted by the church and under its official auspices. It does not follow, however, that the teaching of the Word of God given in a theological seminary must be given under the auspices of the church. The mere fact that, in certain particulars, the type of teaching given is the type of teaching that may and should be given by the church and may also properly be conducted under the official auspices of the church does not rove that such teaching must be conducted under the auspices of the church. This does not follow any more than does the-fact that the teaching of the Word of God given in the home and in the school is in content the same as may and should be given by the church prove that the family and the school should be conducted under the auspices of the church. A theological seminary is an institution which may quite properly be conducted, like other Christian schools, under auspices other than those of the church, and a great deal of its work is of such a character that the church may not properly undertake it.

It is highly necessary that the theological discipline preparatory to the discharge of the Gospel ministry be as comprehensive as that provided by the curriculum of theological seminaries. But the church may not properly undertake the conduct of such comprehensive, theological education. In the interest of the most effective instruction, however, it is well that the comprehensive course of study be conducted under unified auspices. Since comprehensive theological education may not be conducted under the auspices of the church and since it may properly be conducted under auspices other than those of the church, it follows that a theological seminary, affording comprehensive theological education under
non-ecclesiastical auspices, is not only highly proper but also promotes the interests of effective theological education and guards the principle that the church must limit itself to those activities which Holy Scripture defines as its proper function.

Let’s see the anti-republicationists and pro-hymn singer deal with that.

If You Want Ecumenism, Go to War

The various reactions to developments in Iraq from Protestant officers have me wondering when we Presbyterians ever established fraternal relations with the churches of Eastern Orthodoxy. David Miller, the moderator of Scotland’s Free Church has written a letter to the UK parliament in which he links the Free Church to the Assyrian, Armenian, and Greek Orthodox communions of Iraq:

The plight of persecuted Christians and other minorities in Iraq and Syria – chiefly in regions controlled by the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) – is a matter of grave concern to the Christian community and to all decent human beings.

Likewise, Rick Phillips has prayed:

Our Father in heaven, the sovereign and almighty God, the faithful covenant-keeper and Savior, we plead to you on behalf of our suffering fellow believers in Iraq. Cast your eye upon them and have mercy to uphold and defend your flock. Overthrow the evil of their persecutors and strengthen the faith of those suffering tribulation for the name of Jesus.

To his credit, Joe Carter is calling for caution about the conclusions Christians in the West draw from the situation in the Middle East. Whenever church officials — pastors or popes — speak about current events, the spirituality-of-the-church jaws in me tighten. What do these people know about the situation over there beyond what they see from journalists? Talk about being above your pay grade.

But the odd aspect of this outpouring of legitimate concern for a genuinely tragic set of circumstances in Iraq is the way that Presbyterians lose their ecclesial wits and identify as Christians those whom they used to evangelize. Let’s not forget, for instance, that the southern Presbyterian (Old School no less), John B. Adger went in the 1830s to modern day Turkey to evangelize among the Armenian Orthodox. Also keep in mind that the character of Clarence Ussher, the doctor who tried to protect the Armenians of Van from the Turks during the Armenian genocide was there as part of the Presbyterian missionary effort to Eastern Orthodox Christians.

In full disclosure mode — all the talk about sex has me going — I will admit that I have prayed for persecuted Christians. But the ones I have had in mind most of the time are those believers in Eritrea with whom the OPC has a long and special relationship. (Aren’t I special?) Does that mean that prayers for those suffering at the hands of the ISIS are inappropriate or even wrong? No. But do we need to refer to them as fellow Christians? Does this somehow give us victim status in the culture wars back here in the greatest nation on God’s green earth? (And by the way, would they recognize us as fellow Christians?)

Such solidarity among professed Christians is however a further confirmation of the Old Life axiom that war and church union go hand in hand. War healed every single split in American Presbyterianism except for the start-ups of the OPC and PCA. In 1758 in the middle of the French and Indian War Old Side and New Side Presbyterians put aside differences in part to pull together behind those recent Presbyterian settlers close to the front on the frontier. In 1869, enthusiastic over a war to preserve the union, Old School and New School Presbyterians reunited to show at least in part that they were committed to the same ideals that animated the United States. And just after World War I, mainline Protestants proposed a church union that would have created a single Protestant Church of America (comparable to the ecumenism that fueled the formation of the United Church of Canada 1925).

War is hell. Do we need to forget our theology to affirm that?

Giving Old Meaning to Celebrity Pastor

Can you imagine the mayor of Grand Rapids taking a delegation of city officials to Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, the home of the OPC’s headquarters, to solicit last year’s moderator of General Assembly to attend this year’s assembly in Grand Rapids? I can’t. You can’t. No one can. The reason is that a moderator of an OPC General Assembly is not someone who is going to generate tourism dollars for local business. At best, last year’s moderator will show up (if not a commissioner) and plunk down maybe $1,400 in expenses between room, meals, parking, airport taxes, and miscellaneous items.

The reason for this thought experiment is the news that Michael Nutter, the mayor of Philadelphia, received a bit of a cold shoulder from Pope Francis earlier this week. For a cash-strapped city, it is not enough to be hosting a world conference on families thanks to the Archbishop of Philadelphia’s responsibility. The conference scheduled for next should draw hundreds of thousands to the city. But Nutter wanted to persuade the pope to attend. Since Nutter is not a Roman Catholic (to my knowledge) and since Philadelphia’s origins are Quaker, the only logical explanation for Nutter’s arm-twisting is commercial. With the presence of the pope, maybe those flocking to Philadelphia will double?

Such attention to the papacy, however, has its downside:

The truth is that the more the world flatters the Catholic Church by fixating on the papacy—and the more the internal Catholic conversation is monopolized by speculation about the intentions of one man—the less likely it is that the church will succeed in moving beyond the confusions and conflicts that have preoccupied it since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). The church desperately needs to reclaim its cultural and spiritual equilibrium; it must find a density and richness of worship and mission and a renewed public presence, which far transcend mere loyalty to the pope. Lacking such equilibrium and self-possession, the church cannot find its true voice. But to find this voice, Catholics will have to turn not to Rome but toward one another, which is where both the problems and the solutions lie.

The fixation on the papacy trivializes the faith of Catholics, the vast majority of whom throughout history have had little knowledge of, and no contact with, any pope. Traditionally, the papacy was the court of last resort in adjudicating disagreements among the faithful. But in the last century or so it has increasingly become the avenue of first resort, determined to meddle in every theological or ecclesiological dispute. If American nuns are flirting with novel styles of ministry, the Vatican intercedes. If translations of liturgical texts incorporate a bit of inclusive language, Rome takes out its red pencil. This meddling Vatican infantilizes the church’s bishops, who seem to change their tune (as well as their dress) in response to every new papal fashion. Bishops in turn demand deference from the clergy and laity. The consequences have been all too clear: As in any heavily top-down organization, local initiatives fail to gain a foothold, or fizzle out for lack of dynamic leadership, and apathy prevails in the pews. Institutional gridlock and paralysis have become the norm. Seminaries are empty, and clerical talent is thin on the ground.

At the same time, the advantage of the papacy is the one that goes with monarchy more generally. Imagine Mayor Nutter having to fly around to all of the largest dioceses in N. America, Africa, and Europe, to persuade archbishops to attend the conference and to pay for some of their parishioners to visit Philadelphia. It would break the Mayor’s travel budget. So with one person in power comes efficiency and decisiveness (no consensus-building among committee members).

And for that reason, Roman Catholicism will have trouble ever finding the road to the spirituality of the church even when the pope’s real power is merely spiritual.

Imagine if You Were Orthodox Presbyterian

John Zmirak is back to pester (unintentionally) Jason and the Callers with an explanation for what conservative or traditionalist Roman Catholic culture is so weird. He thinks the problem is numerical. Not as many good Roman Catholics exist as “Sunday Catholics”:

How many people in America actually believe all the central truths of the Catholic Catechism? Public opinion surveys have revealed that high percentages of Sunday Mass-goers do not hold, or perhaps never learned about, transubstantiation (the change of bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist). Depending on which faction of the Catholic fragment you belong to, you can chalk up that ignorance to either the collapse of Catholic schooling, the dumbing down of the liturgy, or even to the suppression during the 1970s of the “unconscious catechesis” that used to occur every time the most unlettered peasant knelt for the Host and reverently took it on his tongue from the blessed hands of a priest.

I don’t know that public opinion surveys have asked “Sunday Catholics” what they believe about the physical resurrection of Christ, or the Immaculate Conception, but if average Catholics believe what I was taught in my Catholic high school, then they are heretics – and probably don’t even know or care.

Practice is not a perfect mirror of what we believe, but surely it tells us something that the rates of divorce, premarital sex, and cohabitation are not a whit lower (and in some cases higher) among Roman Catholics than among most churchgoing Protestants. The explosive growth of annulments is partly an outright abuse on the part of bishops, and partly a recognition that many Catholics enter the sacrament with “defective intent.” Remember that if either party going into a marriage considers divorce and remarriage a possible option it invalidates the marriage. So most of the annulments given out nowadays are quite likely valid – unlike too many Catholic weddings. . . .

The implication of this sad fact is clear: On a grave moral issue where several popes have invoked their full moral authority short of making an infallible declaration, 95 percent of U.S. Catholics (the number is surely higher in most of Europe) have rejected the guidance of Rome. They are not “bad Catholics” so much members of a new, dissenting sect – which happens to occupy most of the seats in most of the churches, and many of the pulpits and bishop’s offices, too.

This means that the market for serious Roman Catholic reflection and works is small:

A good friend of mine who works for a major Catholic publisher reported to me the results of some very pricey market research his company undertook, to turn up the actual size of the “orthodox Catholic market.” Many thousands of dollars later, his company learned that if you count Catholics who go to Mass more than once a week, or spend a single dollar on Catholic books or other media, or volunteer for any parish activity, the grand total for the United States of America is no higher than 1.2 million.

That is the whole Catholic market. No wonder there isn’t enough revenue to go around. All the quarrels between traditionalists and Novus Ordo conservatives, between the lovers of Dorothy Day and fans of John Courtney Murray, are fights for pieces of this tiny pie. A pop tart, really.

And pop tarts aren’t health food. It isn’t normal for the Church to consist just of saints and zealots, ascetical future “blesseds,” and Inquisition re-enactors. Faith is meant to be yeast that yields a hearty loaf of bread. But since 1968 there has been nothing left to leaven, and we find ourselves eating yeast. (My apologies to English readers who love their Marmite.) The last time I was at the Catholic Marketing Network, which includes all the leading companies in the orthodox Catholic market, most of the attendees seemed to be people who’d bought their own booths – so the whole day was spent watching vendors try to sell each other their stuff. (“I’ll trade you three copies of The Secret of the Rosary for one of those 3-D Divine Mercy holograms.”) . . .

The weirdness, bitterness, crankiness, and the general mediocrity that pervade the Catholic subculture – from its newspapers to its TV shows, from most of its tiny colleges to the poorly-penned books, and sloppy, sentimental blogs that flood the tiny market of conservative Catholic readers – is the direct result of having few people to choose from. Right off the bat, 95 percent of potential applicants for any position have disqualified themselves for doctrinal reasons.

Well, John should console himself. At least Roman Catholics have newspapers, tv-shows, and colleges even if it is weird. With only 30,000 in the OPC, the best we can do is a summer Family Bible Camp at some state park in need of serious renovations. And even if you are the much “bigger” PCA, at 300,000 large, the best you can do is one college and a magazine that is sometimes in print.

Even so, Zmirak makes a useful point. When your numbers are low, your options for communicating are meager. If you want to blame this on the free market system — maybe Pope Francis would — then consider how much you can subsidize with only 30,000 small donors. If a potential market of 30,000 doesn’t provide the kind of scale that makes modern media affordable or even conceivable, the potential giving of 30,000 will hardly allow you to subsidize a college or radio station.

So if conservative Roman Catholics feel marginal, try being a conservative Presbyterian.